Existentialism in Education – 7 Key Features

existentialism definition and themes

Existentialism in Education

Existentialism is a philosophy developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Kierkegaard and others. At its core it is about rejection of the idea that there is a higher power or god controlling our destiny. With this knowledge we are liberated to make decisions for ourselves.

In education, it is used as a teaching and learning philosophy that focuses on the student’s freedom and agency to choose their future. Existentialist educators believe there is no god or higher power guiding their students. Thus, they encourage all students to exercise personal agency and create their own meaning for life life.

Definitions of Existentialism

Here are three clear scholarly definitions of existentialism:

  • Guignon (2013) writes that “existentialists hold that humans have no pregiven purpose or essence laid out for them by God or by nature; it is up to each one of us to decide who and what we are through our own actions.”
  • Lawless (2005, p. 326) writes that existentialists believe that “there are no universal standards for a human life: we are what we do, the sum of our actions.”
  • Duignan (2011, p. 113) writes that existentialists believe that “there is no God, and therefore human beings were not designed for any particular purpose”. As there appears to be no pre-ordained meaning of life, humans “are free to choose how they will live.”

[Jump to: Relevance of Existentialism for Education]

The Seven Themes of Existentialism

1. Rejection of Meaning-giving Narratives

Existentialists do not believe that there is a God who gives life meaning.

We were not designed with any purpose set out for us.

Interestingly, some existentialists are still religious. For religious existentialists, there is a God – but he hasn’t left any trace or evidence of how we should live our lives. It’s up to us.

Other existentialist do not believe there is a god at all. This has made them pause and wonder: how can I give meaning to my own existence?

[Jump to: Relevance of Existentialism for Teachers]

2. Existence precedes Essence

  • Essence: Who we are. Our identities.
  • Existence: The fact that we are alive, right now.

‘Existence precedes essence’ is Jean Paul Sartre’s famous phrase.

Existentialists believe we have to choose for ourselves who or what we will become. Remember: they don’t think God left any clues about how we should live our lives. It’s up to us.

“Stop searching for the purpose of life!” they would scream. “You must create purpose for yourself.”

Now that you exist (existence), you must create your own meaning of life (essence).

Here’s how Guignon (p. 256) explains it:

“What this means is we first simply exist – find ourselves born into a world not of our own choosing – and then it is up to each of us to define our own identity or essential characteristics in the course of what we do in living out our lives.”

3. Life is Absurd

Things that make no sense and have no meaning are said to be ‘absurd’.

You might have used this term when hearing a man screaming nonsense on the bus. “He makes no sense to me,” you might say. “This man is absurd!”

Well, to existentialists, life is absurd. It makes no sense to them at all.

4. We live a Life of Despair

 When we realize our lives have no meaning and no purpose, and that our existence doesn’t make any sense, we might despair. It is, after all, an overwhelming thing to come to terms with.

But, to existentialists, there is no point hiding from the meaningless of life. Just because it’s an unfortunate truth, it doesn’t mean you should run off and find solace in something that’s untrue. 

Perhaps, your dusty professor in the cafe by the Seine would say, we use religion to give ourselves meaning because we can’t handle the fact that life is meaningless? How many people in this world have succumbed to this self-delusion out of despair and fear?

5. We always have Freedom and Choice

Now that you know life is absurd and meaningless, what are you going to do about it?

Something nice about existentialism is that you’re free to choose your own path. Existentialists strongly believe that we have the free-will and ‘agency’ to choose our own path in life.

How will you make meaning out of your own life?

Will you sit around and play video games all day? Or will you get up, get motivated, and find a way to create something of yourself?

Maybe we should be teaching children this empowering ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ message?

6. We have a Responsibility to be Authentic

We are free to choose our own life. But we must choose our own life.

Therefore, we are “condemned to be free”.

This quote from Jean Paul Sarte highlights that making choices is very difficult. How do we know that we are making the right choices for our own lives?

The freedom to make choices is a big responsibility.

What are the right choices for our lives?

According to existentialists, our responsibility is to make authentic choices. This means that we need to make choices that are true to ourselves. We must always reflect on whether our choices are the right ones for ourselves and for creating a personally meaningful life.

What would give you fulfillment in your life?

According to existentialism, you need to make choices that will help you obtain that fulfilment. We will call the choices that lead you in the direction of a fulfilling life ‘authentic’ choices.

7. Existentialism is a Humanism

Humanism is a philosophy that believes we should focus on enhancing human life. We should ensure humans’ emotional, social, psychological and physical health is paramount in our minds. 

Many other philosophies try to focus on one thing, like psychology or cognition. But not existentialism. Existentialism keeps its focus on the whole range of human emotions, and how the human being can create a meaningful life for themselves. 

Therefore, existentialism is said to be a form of humanism.

>>>Related Post: Humanist Theory in Education

[Jump to: Existentialism in the Classroom]

Key Existentialist Philosophers

Of the great existentialists, only Jean Paul Satre and Simone de Bouvoir ever accepted the characterization. There are many existentialists (or people who influenced the theory) – in fact, too many to list here. They include: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidigger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus. 

Here are three important figures:

Soren Kierkegaard (1815 – 1855)

Kierkegaard is considered the ‘father of existentialism’.

Below are three ways Kierkergaard influenced existential thought:

  1. Rejection of organized religion: Kierkergaard believed that organized religions tried to assign meaning and order to a disorganized world. He found this to be inauthentic and intellectual overreach. Some things about life cannot be explained because they are simply absurd.
  2. Free will: Kierkergaard also believed all humans have the freedom to choose how to live their lives. These people are obliged to choose how they will live their own lives.
  3. Despair and anxiety: Kierkergaard also believed that the absurdity of life and our responsibility to choose meaning for ourselves will likely lead people into despair.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Nietzsche very strongly influenced existentialism with the following beliefs:

  1. God is dead: Kierkergaard believed in god but thought the church was incapable of understanding God. Nietzsche did not believe in God and declared God dead. As a result, a lot of Nietzsche’s writing was concerned about how to live life without the guidance of a God;
  2. Truth is subjective: We all need to make our own meaning in life.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)

Sartre is the single biggest existentialist philosopher. He believed:

  1. There is no fundamental meaning to life: Humans were not made for any purpose.
  2. Existence precedes essence: We exist, and now that we exist, we must choose our essence (our purpose and identity).
  3. Condemned to be free: We all must make decisions in our lives. Even making no decision is a choice made out of our own free will.
  4. Bad faith: Bad faith occurs when we lie to ourselves to reassure ourselves. We often tell ourselves that we have no choice in a situation to make ourselves feel better. However, Sartre thinks we always have free will and should acknowledge this at all times.

Existentialism in the Classroom

So, how would an existentialist approach education?

Here are a few ways:

1. Educators should help students find meaning for their lives

Students attend school to find out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

The role of the existential educator is to nurture a child as they seek out ways of living that are meaningful to them. Each child may find meaning in different activities.

By the end of their education, children should be able to identify how they want to live their lives. They will then be able to make informed decisions about how to live that live which has personal meaning to them beyond the school grounds.

2. We should not force ‘right’ way to live onto students

Existentialists do not believe we all have a predetermined essence. This means teachers will not try to teach girls to act like ladies and boys to act like men.

Instead, we can each seek out a way of behaving that has most meaning to us as individuals.

3. Teachers should encourage students to exercise individual choice

Activities in classrooms that encourage choice are desirable. Teachers can encourage students to make choices by:

  • Project based learning: Having children come up with their own project based on personal interests;
  • Negotiation of rules: Allowing children to choose the rules that they would like to be seen in the classroom;
  • Student led curriculum: The curriculum should be determined in part by the children and with their input to encourage responsible decision making

4. Students must learn that their choices have consequences

Students may make decisions in the classroom that lead to negative consequences. The existentialist educator should show students how the decisions they made led to that result.

When children observe that their choices have an impact, they become more aware of their ‘agency’. In other words, they’ll realise that their choices really do influence outcomes in their lives and the lives of their classmates.

When saying ‘choices have consequences’, I am not referring to punishments from teachers. Rather, I am referring to the fact that teachers can point out to students that what just happened in the classroom (good or bad) was in fact a result of a choice they made earlier in the day.

>>>Related Article: How to Set High Expectations in the Classroom

5. Students need to accept responsibility for themselves regardless of their circumstances

Many children will come to school with many disadvantages and disabilities, including:

  • Poverty;
  • Physical disability; 
  • Mental disability;
  • Social difficulties;
  • And so on

Nonetheless, an existentialist would let a child know that they always can overcome adversity through the choices they make.

This is an empowering message!

It shows students that they should have a growth mindset. Instead of saying “I can’t” they can say “I can – and these choices will move me toward my goals”.

A good idea is to present students with case studies of people who overcame adversity by choosing to make an effort and work hard.

>>>Related Article: How to Motivate Yourself to Study

6. Educators should make students aware of the infinite choices they have in their lives

Situations in which students claim that they have been hard done by or lack choice or opportunity are teaching moments.

Teachers should help children brainstorm choices they have. They should also encourage students to make decisions based on the best available evidence.

Teachers can also present students with various alternative and non-traditional pathways through life beyond seeking a safe career choice.

7. Expression of an authentic self should be encouraged

Student self-expression that is authentic should be encouraged. When children express themselves authentically through art, behavior or school work, they are acting in ‘good faith’.

When students express themselves in ways that they think will make themselves look ‘cool’ or to impress others, they are acting in bad faith. This is particularly true when the behavior does not reflect the student’s private self.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Existentialism

Strengths of existentialism include:

  • The emphasis on choice and freedom is empowering for children;
  • Children are shown that they must work hard and make smart choices to achieve what they want;
  • Authenticity is encouraged which may help with inclusion of LGBTQI students;
  • Traditionalist and conservative models of education like rote learning are discouraged, while more active forms of learning like project-based learning are encouraged.

Weaknesses of existentialism include:

  • Messages about despair and the meaningless of life may be scary for young children;
  • Some people believe existentialism does not have a moral core and could lead students to lack any sense of obligation to their classmates or society. Key existentialists such as Nietzsche and Heidigger used their philosophy to defend unethical behavior (Heidigger was a Nazi);
  • Existentialism lacks structure and direction as there is no clear life course that students have laid out before them.

References and Further Reading

Duignan, B. (2011). The history of western ethics. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Publishing. (Google books preview here)

Flynn, F. (2006). Existentialism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Google books preview here)

Guignon, C. (2013). Existentialism. In: Craig, E. (Ed.) Concise Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. (p. 265). London: Routledge. (Google books preview here)

Lawless, A. (2005). Plato’s sun: an introduction to philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Google books preview here)

Magrini, J. (2012). Existentialism, phenomenology, and education. Philosophy scholarship, 30. Retrieved from: http://dc.cod.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=philosophypub 

Mahini, F. & Yahyaei, D. (2017). The Influence of existentialism on teaching methods. International Journal of Learning and Teaching, 9(3): 354-363. (free access here)

Koirala, M. P. (2011). Existentialism in Education. Academic voices: a multidisciplinary journal, 1(1): 39 – 44. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3126/av.v1i0.5309. (free access here)

Panza, C. & Gale, G. (2008). Existentialism For Dummies. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing. (Google books preview here)

Sharma, A. P. (2010). Indian & Western Educational Philosophy. New Delhi: Unicorn Books. (Jump to Chapter 8)

Yue, A. R. (2010). Existentialism. In: Mills, A., Eureops, G., & Wiebe, E. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of case study research. (pp. 362 – 366). Los Angeles: SAGE. (Google books preview here)

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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